Tag Archives: Gematria

The Faces of God’s “Chariot”

‘The Pillar of Fire’ by Paul Hardy (1896)

This week’s parasha is Beshalach, with its climactic moment being the Splitting of the Sea. Before this, we are told that “God went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could journey day and night.” (Exodus 13:21) The Zohar (II, 46b) comments on this that the Patriarchs travelled alongside Israel: the words “went before them by day” refers to Abraham; “in a pillar of cloud” is Isaac; “to lead them the way” is Jacob; “by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” is David. The Zohar then says that these four are the faces upon God’s Holy “Chariot”.

It is the prophet Ezekiel that describes the Chariot in greatest detail. The Book of Ezekiel begins with his famous vision:

And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the colour of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings… As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle.

Each of the four corners of God’s Chariot has an angel “driving” it. As might be expected for a chariot, beneath each angel is a spinning wheel. The description appears to be speaking not of a simple wheel, but possibly a gyroscope, a “wheel within a wheel” as Ezekiel states (1:16). Each angel has four faces: the face of a man at front, a lion at right, an ox on the left, and an eagle on the back. Understanding the appearance of the animal faces is straight-forward, but whose human faces adorn the angels? The Zohar states these are the faces of God’s beloved Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.

The “Tree of Life” depicting the Ten Sefirot, intertwined by the 22 Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. Together, they make up the 32 Paths of Wisdom.

Recall that Abraham represents the Sefirah of Chessed, “kindness”; Isaac represents Gevurah, restraint and judgement; Jacob is Tiferet: beauty, balance, truth; and David is Malkhut, “kingdom”. These four Sefirot also correspond to four elements: Chessed is flowing, life-giving water; Gevurah is powerful, burning fire; Tiferet is the spirit of boundless air; Malkhut is the earthy kingdom below. Although there are, of course, Ten Sefirot, these four in particular serve as the major “axes” of the Tree of Life. They have also been said to correspond to the three major dimensions of space, and the fourth dimension of time. (It is worth mentioning that string theory has expanded the number of dimensions to ten—as we might have predicted all along based on the Sefirot!)

Each of the Chariot faces also parallels the major constellations of the Zodiac: first is dli, “Aquarius”, with the face of a human. Three months later comes shor, “Taurus”, the bull or ox. Three months after that is aryeh, “Leo”, the lion. Finally, after another three months is ‘akrav, “Scorpio”, which in ancient times was alternately referred to as the “Eagle” constellation, nesher. The Zohar (I, 24a) points out that the initials of these four constellations and their faces is shinan (שנא״ן), standing for shor, nesher, aryeh, and the nun sofit being representative of the complete human. This is the meaning of the cryptic statement in Psalms (68:18) that “God’s Chariots are myriads, alfei shinan; God is among them, as in Sinai.” Just as at the Splitting of the Sea and at the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai that followed, when God “descended” into this world amongst myriads of Chariots, He continues to “mount the Cherubs and fly, gliding on the wings of the winds…” (Psalm 18:11)

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) offers another mystical meaning of alfei shinan: that God “rides” through 18,000 worlds. This number is derived from the fact that the verse states the number of Chariots is ribotaim, meaning “twenty thousand”, but then says alfei shinan, which can mean “less two thousand”. So, twenty thousand less two thousand leaves 18,000! What are these 18,000 worlds through which God “rides”? The Zohar (ibid.) states that these are the worlds in which God’s Presence dwells. If His Presence dwells there, it implies that there is someone in those worlds to benefit from His Presence! Incredibly, one of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts, Seder HaRuchot, says that God visits these 18,000 worlds and “examines their populations” in an instant! Based on such sources, there have been authorities who’ve suggested there very well may be life on other planets—perhaps 18,000 of them out there in the vastness of the cosmos. Generally speaking, these 18,000 are thought to be strictly angelic worlds, inhabited by the supernal beings. (For a lot more on this, see here.)

Rotating Faces

While each forefather may have excelled in one particular aspect, he was also a complete man who possessed the other traits. Abraham was mainly Chessed, but clearly displayed Gevurah, too, as we see in harsh trials like the Akedah. The Torah says three times that Abraham arose early in disciplined service of God (Genesis 19:27, 21:14, 22:3). Meanwhile, Isaac was Gevurah first and foremost, but is also described with words of lovingkindness in at least three places (Genesis 24:67, 25:28, 27:9-14). Jacob is the perfect balance of the two, hence it is Jacob that embodies the balance and truth of Tiferet. And David is the very reflection of Jacob centuries later. One who reads the Tanakh carefully will see how the lives of Jacob and David mirror each other. (For more on this, see ‘The Mystical Connection Between Jacob and David’.)

This is one reason why each of the faces of the Patriarchs on the Chariot also had a lion, ox, and eagle face. When necessary, each of these great Jewish figures could “put on” their lion face, representing Gevurah, and fight noble battles. [In fact, the gematria of “lion” (אריה) is 216, equal to Gevurah (גבורה)!] At other times, they could be the “ox” peacefully tilling the soil and investing in the development of the Holy Land. As we read in the Tanakh, each of the four figures did tremendous work in the Holy Land, from digging wells to planting trees (and everything in between) in order to make the land flourish and prosper. They could also put on an “eagle” face and “hover over their hatchlings” (Deuteronomy 32:11). The eagle has to teach its chicks some perilous skills like flying and hunting. The figures of the Chariot similarly taught their families and disciples how to navigate the dangers of this material world and live the proper spiritual path. (The Arizal has a fascinating discussion on the eagle and its ability to spot and defeat the snake—symbolic of the evil inclination—in Sha’ar HaPesukim on Mishlei.) Their teachings continue to give us the tools to fly ever higher today.

There is a wonderful lesson here for us. Every good human being works hard like an ox, hovers over their family like an eagle, and defends them like a lion. Behind the face of each person—like the face of each Patriarch, and the face of each angel on God’s Chariot—is the face of a lion, an eagle, and an ox. The spinning wheels beneath these faces symbolize the need to put on a different one of these faces at different times, when the situation calls for it. We have to be able to display both kindness and strength, both beauty and modesty, humility and honour. We must balance all the elements—water, fire, air, earth—within us, and walk the spiritual trail blazed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. This is the “pillar of fire” that guided and protected the Israelites in the Wilderness, and continues to guide us and protect us today.

Jews and Christmas Trees

As we approach Christmas and New Year’s Eve and start seeing “Christmas trees” popping up all around us, it is worth exploring where this custom came from, and what the Torah might say about it. It is especially important to address because some Jews from the former Soviet Union continue to have a (seemingly) non-religious “New Year’s tree” yolka in their homes, as do assimilated and intermarried Jews across Europe and America. Is it okay to have such a tree in a Jewish home? As might be expected, the short answer is “no”. To properly understand why, we must take an eye-opening trip back in time.

An 1886 illustration of Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

The ancient Nordic and Germanic tribes celebrated a winter solstice festival usually referred to as Yule. Part of the ritual involved worshipping and decorating an evergreen tree, which symbolized life in the dead of winter. Many tribes associated the tree with Odin, the “father of all the gods” in Norse mythology. He was the most powerful figure in the Nine Worlds, represented by Yggdrasil, the sacred tree. Yggdrasil was a “tree of life” of sorts, while beneath its roots lay Hel, the underworld of the dead, and the origin of the English word “hell”. The word Yggdrasil itself means “Odin’s horse” or “Odin’s gallows” (Ygg, or Yggr, is another name for Odin). Others associated the tree with another powerful deity, Thor, “god of thunder”, Odin’s son and protector of Earth. (Fun fact: Wednesday and Thursday are named after Odin and Thor, ie. Odin’s-day and Thor’s-day!)

In 723 CE, the Christian missionary Boniface went forth to convert the pagan Germanic tribes. He came upon a village in the midst of worshipping an oak tree in honour of Thor and were apparently about to sacrifice a baby. Boniface took an axe and chopped the tree down—according to legend, miraculously in one swipe. He didn’t do away with the tree-worshipping ritual entirely, though, and offered the pagans a way to hold on to their old customs: Boniface pointed to a baby fir tree and said “let this tree be the symbol of the true God”. So goes the story, anyways.

While the Germanic and Nordic tribes were all eventually converted to Christianity (some by choice, most by force), they retained many of their old customs. Another example: In Norse myth, “Father Odin” (with his long white beard) would go around on his eight-legged horse to deliver gifts at Yule-time, with the help of the alfar, “elves”, which play an important role in the Norse worldview. “Father Odin” became “Father Christmas”, ie. Santa Claus. To make this less pagan and more palatable to Christians, the figure of Santa Claus was eventually associated with “St. Nicholas” instead, much like the pagan evergreens became symbolic of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the spherical red ornaments commonly hung on Christmas trees evolved from apples once hung on Christmas trees to represent the Forbidden Fruit.

There is a great deal of irony here, in that something symbolizing life is chopped down and killed! (And plastic tree alternatives are no better, for they will go on to contaminate the Earth with toxic chemicals for centuries.) It is fitting, then, that the Christmas tree is decorated with “apples” of the Forbidden Fruit, which did not grow on the Tree of Life, but rather on the Tree of Knowledge which brought death into the world. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (c. 1240-1291), one of the great Sephardic mystics, in his Sefer Sitrei Torah, likened the wooden cross upon which Jesus presumably died to the Tree of Knowledge. (In Hebrew, the word for “wood” and the word for “tree” is the same, etz.) Jesus claimed to be the Tree of Life, the only path to eternal life in Heaven, and for this preposterous claim—supplanting the singular God and His Torah—he was punished measure for measure by being killed on a “tree of death”.

Abulafia held that believing in Jesus was undoubtedly a form of idolatry (and, for those who like numbers, he gave a further mathematical proof in that the gematria of “Jesus”, Yeshu [ישו] is 316, equal to “elohei nekhar”, אלהי נכר, the Torah term for a foreign or false god). We should remember to stick to the one true God and His Torah alone for, as King Solomon said, “it is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and whoever upholds it is fortunate.” (Proverbs 3:18) In case anyone was doubting what Solomon was referring to here, he began by stating Torati al tishkach, “do not forget My Torah, and may My mitzvot always be upon your heart.” (Proverbs 3:1) The Torah, and fulfilment of its mitzvot, alone holds the true spiritual path—that is the Tree of Life.

One of those 613 mitzvot of the Torah is not to worship trees, nor bring trees anywhere near the sacrificial altar in the Temple, not even to plant trees that might later be used for worship (Deuteronomy 16:21). Throughout the rest of Scripture, we find that Jews unfortunately sometimes went astray and succumbed to the idolatries of the nations around them, including worshipping Asherah trees and using them as ritual objects. The prophet Jeremiah warned us long ago: “Thus said God: Do not learn from the ways of the nations… for their customs are worthless; they chop down a tree from a forest, they adorn it with silver and gold…” (Jeremiah 10:2-4) As such, there is certainly no room for Christmas trees in a Jewish home. But what if the trees are devoid of any religious significance?

Yolka

After the October Revolution of 1917, the Communists in Russia went on to ban all religious activity, including Christmas trees. Nonetheless, as the famous saying goes, “old habits die hard”, and people weren’t willing to give up on their customs. Thus, just as Boniface had done centuries earlier, the leaders of the USSR decided to simply replace the symbolism. In 1935, they reintroduced the ritual as a novogodniya yolka, a “New Year’s tree”, along with Dyed Moroz, “Grandpa Frost”, and his snowy female helper Snigurachka, in place of the more religious Santa Claus and his mystical elves. Instead of Christmas Eve, Dyed Moroz would come on New Year’s Eve. (Interestingly, the mysterious word yolka probably comes from that pagan Yule festival.)

In the past, we’ve written about the permissibility of Jews celebrating the secular New Year’s Eve. While there is some leniency regarding New Year’s Eve, the tree in the home is an entirely different issue. When the Torah is so explicit about avoiding any tree rituals, and considering how strongly the Tanakh cautions us about Jews going astray and mimicking the tree-customs of the nations, and keeping in mind how the origins of the tree are deeply pagan first and foremost, as well as extensively Christian thereafter, it is important to stay away from anything remotely resembling a Christmas tree or yolka.

Thankfully, we have a much better tree-related celebration just a month or so after in Tu b’Shevat. This one requires no wanton destruction of trees, nor any pagan-like tree rituals, instead simply appreciating all the good that trees and plants do for us. And it comes with a mystical custom to hold a Tu b’Shevat seder, like on Pesach, symbolizing the forthcoming Final Redemption. When the actual Mashiach does come to usher in the Redemption, our Sages say he will “flourish like a palm tree; thrive like a cedar in the Lebanon.” (Psalm 92:13) May we merit to greet him soon.

Mind-Blowing Gematriot

In this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, Moses cautions the people in his final song to carefully fulfil “all the words of this Torah, for it is not an empty thing for you” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments here that, on a deeper level, the words “for it is not an empty thing for you” are referring to gematriot, the numerical calculations and mathematical codes embedded in the Torah, that emanate from the divinity and precision of the Hebrew language. The general public often disparages gematria as being unreal or artificial in some way, a soup where anyone can find anything they are looking for. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While some have certainly abused gematria in unnatural ways, there is a legitimate foundation and system to it. Continue reading